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Learn to Identify and Translate Transitive and Intransitive Latin Verbs

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/20/2013

Both English and Latin use two types of verbs to convey action. Understanding these verbs in English is the key to translating them from Latin to English. Learn how to identify and translate transitive and intransitive verbs in Latin.

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    English Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

    Verbs that take a direct object are called transitive verbs. Recall that a direct object is a word in a sentence that indicates to whom or to what the action of the sentence is directed. In essence, a direct object receives the action of the verb. For example:

    The boy is giving a rose.

    Caesar defeated the enemy.

    John is reading a book.

    In each or the sentences above, the direct objects (rose, enemy, book) are receiving the actions of the verbs. The direct object answers what is given, who was defeated, and what is being read.

    Unlike transitive verbs, intransitive verbs do not take a direct object. The verb stands alone without a subject to which an action is directed. For example:

    The boy ran.

    The gods ruled.

    The cat sat.

    Notice that in each of these examples, the verb or verb phrase is not directed toward any object or person. However, the meaning of each sentence is quite clear. Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on whether a direct object is supplied by a speaker or writer. For example:

    Caesar sees.

    Caesar sees the boy.

    Notice that both sentence are grammatically and practically correct. However, in the first sentence the verb “sees" is functioning as an intransitive verb and in the second sentence the same verb is functioning as a transitive verb. Understanding these concepts in English is the first step in identifying these two types of verbs in Latin.

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    Verbs are parts of speech among nouns, direct objects, indirect object, etc., that express the action of a sentence. Verbs can convey a physical action such as walking, speaking, or running; mental actions such as thinking, hoping, or understanding; or states or conditions such as being, becoming, or changing. Unlike English, Latin verbs are typically found at the end of a sentence, but recall that word order in Latin is far less important since Latin words change to indicate their function. Although unfamiliar to English speakers, having the verb at the end of the sentence makes translation that much easier for the elementary Latin student since it is the first place a student should start when translating sentences from Latin to English.

    When looking up verbs in a Latin dictionary, a standard set of abbreviations and codes identify more information about the word. There are two types of verbs in both English and Latin. Transitive verbs, signified in most dictionaries with “v.t.," are those that take a direct object. In contrast, intransitive verbs, signified with “v.i." in a dictionary, do not take a direct object. Understanding the relationship between verbs and potential direct objects makes translation from one language to another much simpler.

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    Latin Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

    Transitive, intransitive, and those verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive are found in Latin as they are in English. They also function in exactly the same way in both languages. However, Latin is an inflected language, meaning the form of words change to indicate their function in a sentence. Consequently, identifying whether a verb is transitive or intransitive requires an understanding of the different cases of nouns.

    Recall that Latin’s direct objects are indicated with the accusative case. When translating a sentence from Latin to English always identify the verb first and then look for its subject and any potential direct objects. Success or failure in finding the object of a verb will indicate whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. For example:

    Puer rosam dat. (The boy is giving a rose.)

    Caesar inimicum superavat. (Caesar defeated the enemy.)

    Ionn librum legit. (John is reading a book.)

    Notice that in each case, the verbs (dat, superavat, legit) have direct objects (rosa, inimicum, librum) indicating that the verbs are transitive. In contrast, look at these sentences with intransitive verbs:

    Nauta est bonus. (The sailor is good.)

    Di erant benigni. (The gods were kind.)

    Puer sedet. (The boy is sitting.)

    Notice that these example sentences have no direct objects receiving the actions of the verbs. This is what sets them apart from sentences with transitive verbs.

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    Conclusion

    Both Latin and English employ transitive and intransitive verbs. Whereas transitive verbs take a direct object, intransitive verbs do not. In some cases, a verb can be either transitive or intransitive depending on whether a speaker or writer supplies a direct object. Identifying whether a Latin verb is transitive or intransitive is a matter of finding or failing to find a word in the accusative case that is the object of the verb. Remember that unlike English, Latin word order is far less important so the direct object in the accusative case may be just about anywhere in the sentence. Practice and experience in translating sentences from Latin to English will make identification of transitive and intransitive verbs easy.